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Odd man out, a militant Gepid, and other etymological oddities

By Anatoly Liberman

I usually try to discuss words whose origin is so uncertain that, when it comes to etymology, dictionaries refuse to commit themselves. But every now and then words occur whose history has been investigated most convincingly, and their history is worth recounting. Such is the word odd. Everything is odd about it, including the fact that its original form has not survived in English. Odd appeared as odde in the fourteenth century. It was a borrowing from Scandinavian, where oddr meant “spear point” and metonymically “spear.” But next to oddr Old Icelandic oddi “triangle; a ‘tongue’ of land” existed. From “triangle” the meaning “an odd number,” as opposed to “an even number,” developed. The compound oddamaðr (ð has the value of th in Modern Engl. the, this, that) meant “the third man, he who gives the casting vote” or simply “an odd man,” that is, the third, fifth, and so forth. It is from oddamaðr that English has “odd man (out).” Icelandic oddatal “odd number” has the same structure as oddamaðr; tal is related to Engl. tell “count,” as in tell the beads and others (compare also the noun teller). Icelandic vera í odda continued into English as to be at odds, and this is also why heroes fight against overwhelming odds. Odd in twenty odd years, three hundred odd (any number between 300 and 400) has the same source. Even oddball, coined apparently in America close to the middle of the twentieth century, harkens back to the Old Scandinavian word. Such are the odds and ends of etymology. Some dictionaries devote separate entries to the adjective odd and the plural noun odds, but there is no need to do so. The singular — the odd — occurs in whist and golf; since the meaning of the odd is “handicap,” it resembles the plural in the common phrase odds-on. Odd is an ideal playing ground for puns. Is odd couple “an extra pair” or “two people who don’t match”? An odd trick in whist is not a peculiar trick but the seventh, the first the winners count toward the score (incidentally, the terminology of games is not the same in Great Britain and the United States).

Oddi was frequent in Scandinavian local names, and it was on a farm called Oddi that Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) grew up. Here a modern picture of Oddi is reproduced. This photo, along with geysers, volcanoes, mountains (in which only ghosts live), and Þingvellir (the place of the most ancient European parliament), is one of the best-known sights used in advertising trips to Iceland (þ = th in Engl. thin). Snorri was a great historian, poet, and politician. He wrote a book known today as The Prose Edda, or The Younger Edda, a manual of Old Scandinavian poetics and myths, as they were remembered in the thirteenth century. He also wrote a history of the kings of Norway (Heimskringla; the book still reads like a thriller — it exists in two excellent English translations) and possibly one the best sagas (The Saga of Egill; in English translations, usually one l is retained: Egil). He was killed by his enemies, and never has a more tragic event happened in the history of Icelandic literature. The origin of the name Edda is a mystery (though the conjectures by etymologists are many), and attempts have been made to connect Edda and Oddi, but the connection is, almost certainly, due to chance and is not more convincing than the one between Boston and best. It is for the sake of Snorri, if for nothing else, that the etymology of odd deserves our attention.

In Icelandic oddr, dd goes back to rd, and with ord we immediately find ourselves on familiar ground. Old Engl. ord meant “point, spot, place.” Its German cognate Ort still means “place,” though a few idioms have retained older senses. Above, I said that the demise of the original form of odd is surprising, and so it is. Old Engl. ord meant the same as Old Scandinavian odd, so why did people substitute a borrowing for the native word? But such events are common. If even they, them, and though were allowed to replace their native rivals, odd had to live up to its capricious meaning. Not only can we trace the paths of odd as it moved from language to language; we even know where the ancient form ord- came from. In Old Germanic, the consonant z became r. Consequently, when we come across an Old Germanic word with r, we have to decide whether it traces back to r or to z. For example, in the verb rear the first r is old, while the second began its life as z. The change of z to r is called rhotacism, from the name of the Greek letter rho, and we can affirm with certainty (a rare case in etymological studies) that r in ord is rhotacized z. The information comes from names.

Both Ort- and Odd- were common elements in Germanic personal names like Oddgeirr (spear-spear, a tautological compound: both elements mean the same, because geirr means spear, as its English cognate still does in Engl. garfish and garlic, let alone the common favorite Garfield; clearly, the boy was expected to grow up a great warrior; I once devoted a post to such compounds), Oddleifr (a much sadder name, for it refers to what has been left of spear play: presumably, the enemies’ corpses were meant), Oddrún (a female name: “spear’s counselor”), Þoroddr (Þórr was one of the great gods of the ancient Scandinavians), and so forth. In some cases, people may have no longer been aware of the inner form of the most popular names, such as -rún and -leifr, but no one would have missed the message of Oddgeirr. In continental Germanic, we find Ortger, a twin of Oddgeirr, Ortwin, Ortlieb, and other devotees of the spear. Against this background, the name Usdibadus, recorded in Greek letters, comes in most useful. Usdibadus was a Gepid (an East Germanic tribe closely related to the Goths), and his name followed the familiar pattern: usdi + badus, that is, “spear” + “battle.” Usdi- is an obvious cognate of ord, with s, pronounces as z before d, not rhotacized (East Germanic lacked rhotacism: either this change happened later than the fourth century, when the Gothic Bible was translated from the Greek, or it simply never had it). I think his mother called him Uzdi. So this is then the beginning of ord- ~ odd: it was uzd-, from usdo- “spear (point),”perhaps from uz + do, approximately “up” + “put,” an object pointing toward its target. Quite appropriately its Lithuanian cognate means “thistle.” Such is the long history of our word, from Indo-European or at least Germanic warfare to modern golf and whist. If I had a taste for coy titles (and I once professed my dislike of them), I would have called this essay “From Sword to Ploughshare, from Spear to Niblick, Or an Episode in the History of Indo-European Disarmament.”

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. Meghan

    How bizarre, how bizarre…

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